Following in the dense intellectual style of last year’s “A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” is heavily dialogue- and theory-driven, only this time the psychoanalysis has been replaced with economic and financial jargon in an eerily dystopian retelling of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name, this riveting commentary on capitalism could not have come at a more appropriate time.
Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a 28-year-old Wall Street hotshot whose determination to get a haircut across town turns into an unexpected all-day ordeal. Delaying his journey through Manhattan is the president’s visit to the city, a celebrity funeral and an anarchist protest that bears strong resemblance to the Occupy movement (although any similarity is purely coincidental since production ceased before Occupy Wall Street became a phenomenon).
Isolated from the outside world in his custom-built white stretch limo, Eric’s only real links to reality are the brief interactions with his employees, advisors, wife and would-be assassins. Through these conversations, much more of Eric’s character is revealed than his cool, unaffected demeanor outwardly belies. His refusal to heed advice from both his workers, who urge him not to bet against the yuan, and his head of security, who wants him to take threats against his life more seriously, only hint at Eric’s simultaneous reckless ambition and indifference to his own destruction.
Eric’s encounters with his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon), an aspiring poet from a wealthy family, reveal a different side as well. Not only is it evident that their loveless marriage was essentially a business merger, but also that, as the wealthiest characters, they are both woefully out of touch with society. Eric has his limo to shield him from the outside, but even Elise, who allegedly spends her free time wandering the city, remains equally aloof and disengaged. Despite their similarities, they simply cannot relate to each other, making self-aware references that they know that couples are supposed to communicate and yet they are unable to. Of course, Elise withholding sex doesn’t help the relationship either.
What are the true values of time and money? This question constantly rears its head as it becomes increasingly apparent that Eric cannot possibly make it to the barber before closing and as he watches his fortune dwindle thanks to his stubborn investment decisions. Protestors brandishing dead rats and vandalizing his limo don’t faze him, and it is only when a former employee points a gun at his head that Eric begins to show an inkling of emotion.
“Cosmopolis” undoubtedly has a lot to say about the current state of society – the economic crisis, the self-interested business culture, the unrest of the lower classes – but Cronenberg’s approach to the material has already proved divisive. Early promotional footage emphasizes the sex and action of the story but, like “A Dangerous Method,” the film has a distinct literary sensibility with much of the dialogue being lifted straight from the book. It’s a thinking fan’s film, but worth the effort because, after all, how often is it that life imitates art?